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Book Review: The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales

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The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales – Franz Xaver von Schönwerth translated by Maria Tatar

Turnip PrincessA rare discovery in the world of fairy tales – now for the first time in English. With this volume, the holy trinity of fairy tales – the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, and Hans Christian Andersen – becomes a quartet. In the 1850s, Franz Xaver von Schönwerth traversed the forests, lowlands, and mountains of northern Bavaria to record fairy tales, gaining the admiration of even the Brothers Grimm. Most of Schönwerth’s work was lost – until a few years ago, when thirty boxes of manu­scripts were uncovered in a German municipal archive. Now, for the first time, Schönwerth’s lost fairy tales are available in English. Violent, dark, and full of action, and upending the relationship between damsels in distress and their dragon-slaying heroes, these more than seventy stories bring us closer than ever to the unadorned oral tradition in which fairy tales are rooted, revolutionizing our understanding of a hallowed genre.

Franz Xanver von Schönwerth (1810-1886) was born in Bavaria and had a successful career in law and the Bavarian royal court before devoting himself to researching the customs of his homeland and preserving its fairy tales and folklore. Maria Tatar chairs the program in folklore and mythology at Harvard, and has edited and translated many collections of fairy tales. Eeika Eichenseer is a historian and preservationist working for the Bavarian government and the director of the Franz Xaver von Schönwerth Society.

The Dinglehopper was excited to review Jack Zipes’ The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition last Fall. The tales included in Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s original collection were rougher, stranger, and more violent than the versions most of us heard growing up. And yet they were still somewhat aggregate, selected and edited as examples.

Franz Xaver von Schönwerth began collecting tales after they were more or less done and earned their respect.  They praised his accuracy and sensitivity. Where the Grimms presented tales in something of an archetypal role, von Schönwerth recorded tales as told. More like an anthropologist.

As a result, the stories in The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales aren’t necessarily structured the way you might think. My initial impression, of at least some of the tales, was that bits and pieced might have been missing. Or that two or more tales had been combined. This was perhaps heightened by having read the Zipes so recently.

But what I was really experiencing were tales as told at a hearth or around a campfire or even at a public house. They aren’t the work of professional writers polishing plot and character. They’re oral, remembered and related. If elements appear to slip between one story and the next, well, that’s to be expected. Isn’t it?

This collection gives a real sense of time and place as a result. You come to expect twelve men to torture Hans on the third night or a mountain made of glass. It familiarizes a past as comfortably as an epic fantasy novel. The relationships between the tales recreate a vibrant living tradition that might not be visible without the diligence of von Schönwerth, the research of Eichenseer, and the labor of Tatar.

If you’ve read my non-fiction reviews, you might have noticed a certain delight with comprehensive notes. Almost a fifth of the book, conveniently placed at the end so the reader can read casually or rabidly through the tales as she pleases, is endnotes by the translator. Some dig deep into the past to reveal sources and trace them through regional history. Others discuss the Aarne–Thompson-Uther type the tale represents, its frequency and its variation.

If you just like fairy tales or if you fancy yourself an armchair aficionado, you probably need this book. Unusual tales, rare gems, and novel constructions mean that you haven’t read these stories or their like before. And while more of the tales will undoubtedly be translated in the future, this Penguin Classics edition is bound to be a standard text for some time to come.

Recommended for Clever Hans, George MacDonald, and Clark Griswold.

 

 

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